— by William Caraher
I like the title of this blog because the publisher makes it clear that being an audiophile is like having a problem. I like thinking about it as a reality problem. As an audiophile we constantly ask ourselves how do we experience, and justify, reality.
I had a lovely “low-high-end” system for over a year. It consisted of a pair of imposing Focal Chorus 836vs and a McIntosh MC275 amp. My music came from an almost-vintage Nakamichi CD4 cd player (which I got from my parents in 1992 for earning a 4.0 GPA in college) or from a MacMini through a Cambridge DacMagic DAC. It was a fine thing: lovely to behold and capable of making a delightful racket. I think, all told, it set me back around $10,000 once I added in cables and various other bits and bobs.
My enjoyment of this system was only occasionally interrupted by the gnarled head of reality that would mutter that my stereo cost more than a factory worker in Bangladesh, or farmer in the Central African Republic, might expect to earn in a lifetime. I would usually beat back the creep of guilt by pointing out to myself that I worked hard to be born in a first world country, to upper middle class parents, and to attend private schools and universities. My birth alone entitled me to this system.
Despite the brilliant logic, eventually I gave in and liquidated the system. I helped my “stereo guy” move the equipment into his mini van and watched it depart. I was buoyed by the knowledge that some of my equipment made it into a local state university’s band room. I was sharing the music. Spreading the love. I then retreated to a system that was worth, perhaps, 10% of that other: a refurbished Peachtree Decco 65 and a pair of well-loved Energy bookshelf speakers (I kept the Nakamichi and the MacMini!).
My wife always tells me that she can’t really hear the difference, or at least not 90% of the difference. Fair enough. But I can, and it’s my stereo. And I want my music to sound realistic! Not so real that I get guilty, but real enough where I can close my eyes and hear the fingers on the guitar strings, the roundness of a note on a grand piano, and I can wonder whether a slight studio noise (like Miles Davis’s famous chair creaks) was in the other room or on the recording.
I read the popular literature on audiophilia and ponder the benefits of transparent reproduction. I think transparency is fetishized. Transparent speakers show the flaws of amplifiers. Transparent amplification reveals the flaws in the recording. Transparent recording reveal flaws in room acoustics and musicianship. I’m sure that elite musicians seek – as great sculptors of yore – simply to make transparent the sounds inherent in their instruments. It is, to heap metaphor upon metaphor, turtles all the way down.
But, of course, producing realistic music in the comfort of my living room challenges reality in its own way. Throughout most of history, music has been a social exercise embedded in religious rituals, social events, and even economic and military activities. Listening to music in the solitary comfort of my living room, hunkered down in my most relaxing chair, hardly represents a realistic engagement with music. The chatters and bustle of other people, the irregular acoustics of the moving human forms, and the rituals, engagements, and activities that so often operate in the foreground of the music that I now savored abstracted from anything approaching “real” conditions. At times, I feel like my appreciation of my favorite albums, tracks, discs, or streams depends upon a suspension of all reality that is only a step removed from the dry-as-dust technical descriptions of audio reproduction that appear in my favorite audiophile magazines.
So, here I am. Located somewhere between the heart-wrenching economic and social realities of our capitalist, post-colonial catastrophe, and the fictive reality of musical reproduction. There is something contemplative about audiophilia, though, and maybe that’s its benefit to society. Anything that can push us to contemplate reality can’t be all bad, right?